Against the backdrop of the great Egyptian Exodus and the marvelous march through the parted waters, I often wonder about the 80 percent of the ancient Israelite people in Egypt who stayed behind and took no role in these historical developments. After all, we are taught by our tradition that “va-chamushim alu V’nai Yisrael mei-Eretz Mitzrayim” (Exodus 13:18). Literally this means in context that our ancestors left Egypt “armed” (Rashi). The Midrash, however, indicates that “chamush” comes from “chamaish” and thus refers more accurately to the fact that only one fifth of the Israelite people were prepared and willing to leave Egypt. Essentially, we participated in this momentous occasion in history grossly under-represented. More of our people than not could not catch the wave and see the light at last. The dawn of a new day and invitation to a promising future was lost to the masses.
What became of that super majority that refused to become part of the history being made, who were slaves to habit and frozen in the familiar? The answer is left to the imagination. One theory maintains that they perished during the plague of darkness to avoid shame to the newly-freed Israelites. I am not so sanguine on this matter and instead have an image of generations of former slaves somehow accepted into the Egyptian mainstream that once oppressed them and over time so effectively integrated that their Israelite origins are lost on them. It was the first major experience of a Jewish cultural melt-down.
It is a graphic illustration of defection en masse from an emerging new Jewish people and religious/cultural program. This “drop-out factor” is a chilling foreshadowing of what would become the challenge of Jewish continuity. It reminds us that opportunities for meaning and engagement do not easily attract or win followers from all ranks. And while a committed core have sustained Jewish life from time immemorial by building vibrant communities and creating model institutions with a message of Jewish relevance, it is still not unusual to find, not only indifference and apathy, but opposition to change and regeneration.
Pesach and the historical events that flow from it remind us in no uncertain terms of how bedeviled we can become by our own lethargy and intransigence. We are historically marred by this first mass experience of existential divestment. In modern Hebrew the phenomenon is called “hishtamtut,” literally, “drop-out.” Just as central to the Pesach account and our recreation of this epic experience is our honest reckoning with the overwhelming tendency to turn our backs on history and ignore destiny. There is no denying the fear and trepidation that gripped the early Israelites who chose to heed the call and take the plunge. Facing the unknown or unfamiliar requires imagination and faith. But to settle for business as usual denies human progress and societal betterment.
I would suggest that the Pesach experience continues to enjoy greater interest and involvement than any other seasonal celebration and traditional observance because it serves as a template of our strengths and weaknesses. The Seder ritual is a no-holds-barred time for honesty and unqualified sharing of ideas, insights, and even insecurities. It so poignantly captures our capacity for daring and imagination even while it reminds us of how easily one can slide into programmatic paralysis and institutional inertia. The enemies of the Haggadah account who we note have risen “b’chol dor va’dor, in every generation,” have existed within and without. The Pesach Seder is a call to action that begins around the table at an important family meeting. The message of this festival differs in some ways from Shavuot and Sukkot and their associated happiness factor. There is no reference to “v’samachta bechagecha â€“ that you shall rejoice in your festival” in the Passover context, as the nascent Jewish people had yet to prove their mettle or staying power.
We might then more closely focus on this year’s Seder experience as the ultimate “teachable moment” in the Jewish calendar and, through its signature feature of unqualified conversation and connection, come to experience an increased interest and investment in our personal and collective Jewish future. Not only is it “praiseworthy” (“meshubach”) to expansively discuss the Seder account but to dream and design for tomorrow so that the silence of yesterday will be undone by the excitement of today.